What’s going on with the agriculture land Hutchinson Public Schools owns?

With school property a common topic of late — namely with the passage of a bond referendum to fund elementary school renovations — the question has cropped up a few times. The answer provides a glimpse at what district leaders were thinking 20 years ago, and at educational opportunities available for students attending Hutchinson High School. In question is an 80-acre plot of land southwest of the intersection of School Road and South Grade Road.

“This is before my time, before I was here,” said Superintendent Daron VanderHeiden. “Based on files I’ve reviewed, the way I understand it is the district purchased it in October of 1999. They purchased it from Carl and Elaine Rickeman. The land that the middle school is on was also owned by Carl and Elaine Rickeman.”

Memos suggest the couple wanted to get out of farming and contacted the district to see if it wanted to purchase 80 acres. Its proximity to the school caught the attention of administrators. Ultimately, a price of $600,000 was settled on, paid over six years with interest.

“When they purchased it (20 years ago), they had serious intentions of building a high school on that property,” VanderHeiden said. “At one time they were going to take our current high school and convert it to an elementary school and vacate Park Elementary.”

At one point the school also considered turning the property into green space, and the land was considered in past bond referendums, but ultimately it was decided to be cost prohibitive.

The school has no current plans for additional expansions, but the land does go to use. Every three years, the school bids 67 of the 80 acres for agricultural use at about $260 per acre. The school takes in $17,420 each year from the property, and it paid $4,436 in taxes for 2019. The remaining 13 acres is used for education, and includes fields for planting and space for a greenhouse and other projects.

“The greenhouse is used to teach horticulture class,” said Scott Marshall, an agriscience teacher at Hutchinson High School. “We go out there and we raise plants. I also use it for other classes. I have a floriculture class. Right now we are raising flowers out there so we can have one final bouquet at the end of the year.”

The land is also used for the Farm to School program.

“It encourages districts to raise food they can use in their own cafeterias,” Marshall said. “We have an experiment going out there to see if it is viable in the fall to raise things in the greenhouse. Right now we’re raising lettuce. We have cucumbers and potatoes. We want to see if that’s something we can continue.”

The FFA uses the greenhouse to raise plants for its annual plant sale fundraiser. The animal science class has a grant to build a chicken coop so students can raise chickens.

“That way they can talk about things in class and have a hands-on example,” Marshall said.

Chickens are ideal, as they can be raised, worked with and sold within a reasonable time period for a class. It would be nice to bring other animals onto the property, Marshall said, but a lot of work will need to be done to see if it is logistically possible.

Seven acres on the corner of the property is used as an FFA test plot. Seed dealers and cooperatives have donated seed to be planted so students can see the difference in yield and moisture content. Local farmers help with field work and harvest, and talk to students about the process. Corn harvested is used in an FFA fundraiser. This year, the University of Minnesota approached the school to use part of the plot to compare variety and moisture from different portions of the state.

“We didn’t do it this past year, but for the previous three summers we took part of those acres and planted a big garden,” Marshall said. “The FFA kids would come in and pick all the produce and they took it to the food bank. One year they took 550 pounds of food from the garden. It’s a good experience for kids to come out and know they are doing a community service.”

Portions of the land is also used for landscaping practice. One FFA member used the land for a project that called for the cultivation of a bee hive.

Going forward, VanderHeiden said, the school will likely hold on to the land. Though there are no short-term plans for it, as Hutchinson moves southward it will likely become harder for the school to purchase property nearby its campuses.

“The most important thing is it’s so close,” he said.

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